story: Beth K. Maxey photos: Brent Van Auken
WESTERN OPEN FIDDLE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Red Bluff residents always know when the third week in October hits, even without looking at the calendar. Fiddlers stroll the streets playing lively old-time tunes and show up at shopping centers and meetings to entertain and entice listeners. It’s Western Open time.
Fiddlers from across the country have gathered in the North State for the Western Open Fiddle Championships since 1982 when it began in Redding under the sponsorship of the California State Old Time Fiddle Association District 6.
The competition moved to Red Bluff in 1996 after a District 6 committee member suggested that Red Bluff residents Tex Ash and Sharon Barrett might want to co-chair the event.
“‘Move it to Red Bluff and we’ll think about it,’ I said,” says Barrett, “and they said ‘OK.’ We’ve been doing it ever since. It was a highly successful contest in Redding, but it found a home in the community here that it never had there.”
Ash, a bass player, has emceed the Western Open since it began; Barrett organizes and coordinates it. The event committee includes 26 others – some who have been with the event since it began 27 years ago – who oversee food, judges, sales, publicity, sponsors and other tasks essential to the smooth running of a three-day contest involving tight scheduling and some 120 performers.
The event opens Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Tehama County District Fairgrounds with a concert featuring John Marshall with Billy and the Hillbillies, a featured group at Disneyland’s Frontierland for many years.
“The show is filled with humor that is fit for little kids and adults alike,” says Ash. Tickets are $10.
Two ‘Hillbillies’ will serve as Western Open contest judges; another will emcee the popular jukebox events on Friday and Saturday evening, Oct. 23 and 24.
Competition gets underway at 8 am Friday, with contestants allotted just four minutes each to demonstrate their skill. “The evening schedule runs on time,” says Ash, “but the daily schedule can be bizarre. It’s completely contestant-driven.”
Contestants can compete in more than one event within age categories, such as individual playing, picking, twin fiddles and jukebox. The contest is open to the public; a complete schedule is on the organization’s Web site, www.westernopenfiddle.com.
It’s not uncommon to see whole families onstage during competition – adults accompanying contestants as young as 5 years old in the PeeWee events, or parents and children together in the jukebox events or twin fiddles competition.
“Fiddlers are more family-oriented,” says Ash. “I’ve never been in an organization that has such camaraderie between little kids and adults.” Most competitions are like big family reunions, he says, since fiddling families enjoy traveling to contests or fiddling schools.
Fiddlers also love to share their tunes with each other. Pat Scott, a Red Bluff resident and Western Open committee member, started fiddling in 1981 and says one of the best ways to learn new tunes is “me to me.”
“They play a few notes, you play a few notes, they add more. You watch their fingers, watch the bowing. You learn by ear and by building muscle memory (where to put your fingers on the strings),” she says. “You build a relationship with your musical partner.”
Scott’s daughter Melissa (Copenhaver) Lincoln began playing by ear when she was 6 years old and went on to win numerous contests; Scott began to teach fiddle to her granddaughters when they were 2. They all compete in the Western Open.
Barrett adds, “There is a complete acceptance and willingness to learn from anybody – a lack of ego.”
Fiddlers don’t have to read music to play tunes; most use tablature diagrams, or fiddle tab: a picture of the fiddle strings with the top line indicating the highest-sounding string. Numbers on the appropriate lines show the string and finger placement for any note.
So what’s the difference between bluegrass and fiddling? Bluegrass has more vocals and ensembles almost always include mandolin or banjo leads. Fiddling may include banjos or mandolins, but not in a predominant role, says Ash.
Fiddlers also try to preserve and perpetuate old-time square dance, polka, schottische, waltzes and jigs that people have danced to for decades. Bluegrass came out of the Appalachian sound – think Alison Krauss or Ricky Skaggs.
What about the difference between fiddle and violin? Ash, Barrett and Scott laugh. One definition: a violin is carried in a case; a fiddle in a gunnysack. Another definition is freedom: when you play violin, you play the composer’s music, but on a fiddle, you have the freedom to put your own feelings into the music.
“The fiddle dances – it should make you want to dance. The violin sings,” says Ash, with a smile.